Contrary to the title of this blog, there are times when I wonder how music gets INTO my head. Case in point being the Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66 song that surfaced last week.
It was “The Look of Love,” the mostly-Brazilian group’s cover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song done by English pop star Dusty Springfield on the soundtrack of the James Bond spoof Casino Royale. It’s a jazz-tinged, bossa nova-flavored tune I’ve been in love with since I first heard it in 1968, when it was a Billboard Hot 100 No. 4 and regular airplay on AM Top 40 stations — a love affair renewed when I bought a CD compilation of Mendes and 66.
The songs that pop up and run around in my head, do go away after awhile, usually after I cue up the real thing on my iPod or computer. But this one didn’t get a chance to, even after spending one evening last week listening to Classics, Vol. 18: Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66-86.
Thursday, for our 35th anniversary, we went to a Milwaukee restaurant that serves mostly South American cuisine, in part because they had live music. The young man with the guitar and drum machine was set up immediately behind my chair, and after hearing him play one Latin-flavored song, I asked him if he could play “The Girl from Ipanema,” another Brazilian number from my teenhood.
He nodded in agreement, and I turned to my wife, son-in-law and daughter — the last of whom pointed out, since I had asked him to play a song, I was obligated to tip him. Which I did — and then he whiffed on half of the lyrics. I knew them better than he did …
But it was still an enjoyable hour or so, listening to those gentle Latin rhythms. He played several Mendes songs, and seemed surprised when I turned and showed that I recognized them. So I tipped him again.
The reasons that I recognized the songs are: A) In general, I have a phonographic memory for music and lyrics, and B) that kind of music was among my favorites going on 55 years ago.
It all started four years before “The Look of Love,” though, with “The Girl from Ipanema,” a song recorded by American jazz artist Stan Getz and Brazilian musician Joao Gilberto. A No. 5 Billboard hit in mid-1964, the slinky music and sexy vocal by Astrud Gilberto — Joao’s wife at the time, and a Brazilian speaker singing in English — was appealingly exotic to a 15-year-old country kid, hinting of a world quite different from his. I was a huge Beatles fan back then, but I was all in on Brazilian music, at least of that sort.
Mendes and his Brasil ’65 first surfaced the following year, but didn’t really catch fire until 1966, when they started recording for A&M Records and began doing some of the vocals in English. Although their first big hit, “Mas que Nada,” was sung in Brazilian. I don’t remember that getting a lot of airplay on WLS-AM, but it was a No. 4 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary chart, and a No. 47 on the Hot 100.
“The Look of Love” was their big breakthrough, boosted by the band’s performance of the song on the April 1968 Academy Awards show. That’s perhaps where they caught my eye — particularly those two female lead vocalists — but it might have been on another TV show. The song is sultry, sensual — and too short, in my opinion; it could go on for several more verses. Or just put it on a tape loop …
I was very much into Mendes & Co., well into the fall of ’68. Then one fateful day, I went for a ride with one of the guys who stood up at my first wedding, in his 68-ish Mustang fastback, blue with red racing stripes. Mark slipped Iron Butterfly into the eight-track, and said something like, “This is what you’re supposed to be listening to.”
I didn’t become a huge fan of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” although Iron Butterfly was the main act at the first rock concert I ever attended, about six months later. But my tastes definitely turned to harder rock after that.
Sergio and his band didn’t seem to miss me. They didn’t have the kind of success they had with “The Look of Love,” and its followups, “Fool on the Hill” and “Scarborough Fair,” until a decade and a half later. In 1983, “Never Gonna Let You Go” was a Hot 100 No. 4 and an Adult Contemporary No. 1; the following year, “Alibis” was a Top 40 hit, and No. 5 on the AC chart.
And Mendes, going on 81, continues to perform. His bands — the lineups, and the instrumentation, have changed many times over the years — have recorded 40 albums. His music has been nominated for Oscars and Grammy Awards, winning Best World Music Album honors in 1993.
And, as last week demonstrated, I can’t get Mendes’ music outta my head. That 1984 compilation, and the Getz/Gilberto CD featuring “The Girl from Ipanema,” and several other Latin-flavored pieces, became part of our Deck Party Playlist a couple decades ago, which still gets a summer airing occasionally.